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INTERVIEW-Russia's Hermitage learns Western ways to survive
By Ron Popeski

ST PETERSBURG, Russia, May 5 (Reuters) - "And now a word from our sponsor," is the essence of the message emblazoned opposite the Winter Palace in Russia's second city, home to the vast art collection of the Hermitage museum.

And the Hermitage's director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, is deadly serious about it.

The banner draped across the General Staff archway leading into Palace Square said it was being restored on a 50-50 basis -- $1 million from the museum and $1 million from Interros, a business group dealing in nickel, insurance and media.

All that meant adopting Western ways. At least some of them.

"Money is important. We have to raise money," Piotrovsky, who enjoys a reputation throughout St Petersburg of having "saved" the Hermitage, said in an interview.

"A museum can raise money but this must not become its main duty. And of course charitable donations are an important source of income, though it took some time to persuade Russians that this was a prestigious exercise."

Things were not always that easy.

Director since 1992, Piotrovsky is one of St Petersburg's most prominent and respected cultural figures along with Mariinsky Theatre director Valery Gergiyev, and is frequently seen in the city sporting a silk scarf and elegant suit.

Following in the footsteps of his father, who was Hermitage director from 1964 to 1990, he saw the collection nearly ruined when local authorities switched off the heating in the economic turmoil spawned by the collapse of communist rule.

"We very nearly died. Our budget was tiny, our storage area consisted of bare walls. We had to find money to keep the place heated to keep everything from falling apart," he said.

"We were told that the bills weren't being paid and they switched the heating off. I issued an order to break the seal and switch it back on. We wrote letters and made plenty of noise. The press helped us."

With a collection of three million items ranging from prehistoric art, Byzantine and Oriental culture to one of the finest compilations in the world of impressionism and early 20th century painting, the responsibility was great.


The Hermitage began the process of abandoning Soviet-era practices of assuming the state would provide everything.

A society of friends of the museum was founded. Just like in the West.

With new-style Russian companies reluctant to come up with funds, foreign firms were persuaded to come forward to sponsor projects -- Coca Cola and Honeywell among the first.

Reconstruction plans were announced, money-making exhibitions were organised, in Russia and abroad. Licensing arrangements were introduced, with works from the museum marketed on a variety of merchandise.

Projects became more sophisticated over time, like opening up an Internet cafe in the middle of the Winter Palace, home to Russia's tsars and focal point of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

"You cannot take everything from the West. You have to learn and determine what means are best to use," he said.

"The main thing was learning how to count our own money, learn how to count it properly, see how it comes in every week, how it is spent and the options for using it."

Eventually, large Russian corporations were persuaded that sponsoring a prestigious art gallery was a good idea.

Interros embarked on restoring the arch in the nick of time as workers found parts of the statuary were so dilapidated they were ripe for falling on the heads of passers-by.

It then took on the "Greater Hermitage" project -- the notion of placing side by side galleries, displays, lecture halls and restaurants, to attract families for a day out.

When Russia was plunged into financial crisis in 1998, the firm also stumped up $1 million to buy Kasimir Malevich's Black Square -- a pivotal, controversial work of Russian 20th century avant-garde art which would otherwise have left the country.

YUKOS, soon to become Russia's biggest oil company after a merger announced last month, was among other companies to get involved, stepping in to sponsor costly exhibitions.

A decade into capitalist-style management, Piotrovsky sees similarities between running an art gallery and a sports team.

"Things are probably easier for sport, but the idea is the same," he said. "People must understand that this museum is their pride and it has to be supported. People identify with their town's sports team, the same should go for a museum."


That policy seems to be working.

While the number of annual foreign visitors is constant at about 300,000, each paying admission fees equivalent to $10, the number of Russians pouring through the turnstiles is on the rise at about two million. And each pays no more than half a dollar.

"Russians aren't finding life any easier nowadays, but they are starting to think about culture," Piotrovsky said.

"They are coming back to St Petersburg and the Hermitage and bringing their children. To some extent we have helped this happen by talking about ourselves."

Sometimes, good management means just getting value for money, a key consideration as the Hermitage gears up for celebrations marking the 300th anniversary in late May of St Petersburg's founding by Tsar Peter the Great.

With only a few weeks to go, parts of the Winter Palace remain covered in scaffolding -- as do other city landmarks, like the Admiralty building across Palace Square or the Peter and Paul Fortress on the opposite bank of the river Neva.

"Take the Admiralty as an example. We have a French company working for us every year although we are asked why we hire French people instead of our own and bring paint in from France," he said.

"Just look at what is happening over there with our own (Russian) workers and paint. Already they are having to do it over again...You have to teach our workers to work properly and not cheat. Many discussions of corruption often turn political."

The museum is not to be outdone by other institutions in marking the anniversary, due to culminate in a meeting of world leaders hosted by President Vladimir Putin in his home town.

Piotrovsky has announced plans to keep the Hermitage open over 24 hours, a new entrance from Palace Square is being opened and a gallery honouring Russia's 1812 victory over Napoleon is undergoing renovation.

And with the world's spotlight about to be trained on St Petersburg, he says the city is lucky to have a native son as president in a country where standards of living and education vary so widely between town and country.

"He is the first Russian leader in 100 years...to have grown up in a big city," he said.

"All the others were from the provinces. This is not America -- the make-up here is different in the provinces. He knew what the Hermitage was as a child and that is very important."

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